Posted By: Justin Collett
Part 3: Breaking Contact by De-escalation and Disengagement
Firearms instructor Claude Warner, The Tactical Professor, recently told me that “Our goal in personal protection is to force a break in contact. We want them to go away, or we want to go away. One or the other.” Breaking contact is an outstanding mindset for concealed carriers to adopt because it doesn’t necessarily entail the use of deadly force, and it implies the value of avoidance, de-escalation, disengagement, and less lethal force options. When the goal is not necessarily to kill or disable a would-be attacker, a defender is open to other options that carry less legal risk and may produce more positive outcomes.
Last week, we revisited three of our touchstone self-defense cases where the defenders not only failed to BREAK contact with perceived aggressors, but they actually INITIATED contact. All three cases resulted in shootings, prosecutions, and unsuccessful self-defense claims that led to convictions. This week we’ll be revisiting some touchstone cases where the aggressor made initial contact with the defender, but the defender failed to break contact before resorting to deadly force -- missing opportunities to either de-escalate the confrontation or to disengage.
Gerald Strebendt was driving on a relatively isolated suburban highway after dark when he was suddenly rear-ended. The driver of the other car, David Crofut, started cursing at Strebendt and issuing verbal threats. Unnerved, Stebendt, a veteran Marine sniper and retired professional MMA fighter, grabbed a loaded AR-15-style rifle from a bag of firearms he had in the back seat and exited the vehicle. Despite Strebendts’ menacing defensive display, Crofut continued shouting and aggressively advancing. A recording of Strebendt’s 911 call reveals that he repeatedly demanded Crofut to “backup” and “stay back.” Strebendt backed away from the aggressor until he was about 80 feet from his vehicle. Then, after Crofut was close enough to have laid hands on the rifle, Strebendt fired a single fatal round. Crofut, as it turned out, was drunk and unarmed.
While Strebendt demonstrated some restraint and gets credit for backing away, it’s clear that his slow retreat, his defensive display, and his verbal commands all failed to break contact with Crofut. What is unclear is why Strebendt suddenly stopped those efforts 80 feet away from the car. If Strebendt had been committed to a strategy of breaking contact, he could have double-timed his efforts to disengage. Most likely, he would have quickly disappeared into the darkness, and the deadly encounter could have been averted. Instead, Strebendt shot Crofut in the head and later sat in jail while his lawyer fought diligently to reach a plea deal that potentially spared Strebent decades in prison.
Keith Byrne, also a Marine veteran, was talking on the phone with a friend while driving his work truck in Davie, Florida. Distracted, Byrne inadvertently cut-off another driver in traffic, Andre Sinclair. At a stop light, Byrne rolled down his window to apologize to Sinclair; the friend on the phone heard Byrne say, “My bad.” It wasn’t enough for Sinclair who exited his vehicle carrying a pistol. A licensed concealed carrier, Byrne drew his pistol in response, and in the resulting gunfight, both men were shot. Tragically, Byrne died in the cab of his work truck. Sinclair was rushed to the hospital where he succumbed to his wounds. Local law enforcement announced that, had Sinclair survived, he would have been charged with a crime, and Byrne, by all counts, was justified in his use of force.
Justified or not, dying in a gunfight is a worse outcome than being prosecuted for the use of deadly force. While it seems that Byrne was doing the right thing when he rolled down the window to apologize to Sinclair -- an attempt at de-escalation -- he was technically increasing the level of contact he had with the perceived aggressor. Once Byrne saw Sinclair get out of the vehicle, he might have known it wasn’t going to be a polite exchange. As the first vehicle at the traffic light, Byrne could have hit the gas and left Sinclair behind, thus breaking contact and avoiding the deadly firefight. This is not a criticism of Byrne’s decision to defend himself with deadly force, but simply an opportunity for concealed carriers to learn from his tragedy. When breaking contact is the goal, sometimes it is better to disengage rather than attempt to de-escalate.
Michael Drejka initiated a verbal argument with Brittany Jacobs over a handicapped parking spot at a Clearwater, Florida convenience store. As a concealed carrier, initiating conflicts with strangers is almost always a bad idea with potential for tragedy. Drejka could have avoided the impending disaster by never initiating contact in the first place, but his next decisions would prove even more consequential. Jacobs’ partner, Markis McGlockton, came out of the convenience store, saw Drejka harassing his partner, and he walked briskly to him and, without warning, violently shoved Drejka to the ground. Drejka, a permitted concealed carrier, drew his pistol and aimed for center mass. Then he paused. Security footage of the incident shows McGlockton take several small steps backward. Drejka’s defensive display had accomplished the goal of personal protection as Claude Werner has defined it for us: he broke contact with the aggressor.
But then Drejka pulls the trigger, a single shot. McGlockton clutches his chest and stumbles back into the convenience store where security cameras capture him dying at the feet of his helpless five-year-old son. The elected sheriff declined to press charges citing Florida’s stand-your-ground law, although he admitted Drejka’s pause “gives me pause.” After an investigation, the local state attorney filed manslaughter charges. About a year later, a jury convicted, and one juror told reporters that Drejka “had the opportunity not to kill” McGlockton. Drejka had succeeded in breaking contact with his defensive display, rendering the subsequent use of deadly force unnecessary, and therefore, unjustified.
Had these defenders entered their difficult circumstances with the mindset that the goal of self-defense is to break contact with the aggressor, it’s likely that they would have recognized other options beyond resorting to deadly force. Strebent, a trained sniper, no doubt had the skills to elude an erratic aggressor, but it likely never occurred to him as an option. Byrne, a Marine veteran, saw a gun and answered with a gun, and he may not have considered the option of racing away. Drejka had committed to the use of deadly force when he drew his pistol, and it’s likely the inertia of that moment made it difficult for him to reconsider his choice when the imminent threat suddenly evaporated. The lesson for concealed carriers is that if you find yourself engaged with an aggressor, by defining victory as successfully breaking contact, you may find you have many options beyond reaching for your firearm.
SHAWN VINCENT- LITIGATION CONSULTANT
Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters. If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo